During the 2018 Midterm elections, the leaderboard of marijuana legalization added three new states to its tally. Voters in Michigan checked their ballots in favor of legalization, making the Midwestern state the tenth in the nation (plus Washington, D.C.) to allow recreational use, while both Utah and Missouri became the 32nd and 33rd states to legalize medical marijuana use.
Here in Virginia, marijuana wasn’t on the ballot, but a recent bill in the Virginia General Assembly moved the state one step closer to broad legalization—and a dispensary that sells medical cannabis oils is readying to open its doors in Prince William County later this year.
Since 2015, Virginia has been incrementally loosening the regulations that surround medical cannabis. At the time, state legislators passed a law that would allow patients with intractable epilepsy to use cannabis oil with a prescription from their doctor. Then just last year, they expanded the allowance beyond epilepsy to any medical issue deemed appropriate by a doctor, which often includes conditions like PTSD, cancer treatment side effects and chronic pain. The problem? There was nowhere in Virginia where patients could get access to CBD oils. To remedy that, the state recently licensed five dispensaries who will set up shop across the state.
In Northern Virginia, that includes Dalitso, a Manassas-based group that formed in May 2018 when the state put out the call for dispensary bids. Adhering to the strict terms of the state’s licensing agreement, Dalitso has secured a 50,000-square-foot pharmaceutical processor facility in Manassas, where they’ll cultivate the cannabis, process the raw oil to create CBD oil and THC-A oil products, and dispense to registered patients all at one site. After a patient is established and made their first visit, home deliveries will be allowed.
“It really removes the legislature from the doctor-patient relationship,” says Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director for Virginia NORML, the state affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “What’s unique about Virginia implementation of this is that we were the first state to previously adopt a very restrictive model and subsequently expand it in this fashion.”
This all sounds very progressive, but technically marijuana is still illegal throughout the state. The medical use bill operates on an affirmative defense, meaning Dalitso and the other companies, as well as patients, must meet certain criteria—including registration with the state’s pharmacy board—in order to avoid legal consequences.
Pedini estimates that tens of thousands of Virginians will soon be able to access safe and regulated cannabis oil. She cites Medicare and Medicaid studies that indicate that other states with legal access to marijuana have seen a reduction in opioid overdoses, in Medicaid and Medicare costs and in overall prescription drug use.
Plus, in a state that once counted on tobacco farms for its economic prosperity, the idea that the marijuana industry could usher in a new era of economic growth is not lost on its supporters.
When Dalitso is fully operational, it will staff more than 50 employees to handle all of its services. That’s a relatively small start to be sure, but other states have seen the industry take off. Colorado, the first state that fully legalized marijuana, has seen 5.4 percent employment growth since stores first opened in January 2014, and in 2017 there were $1.5 billion in sales for recreational and medical marijuana. When D.C. legalized recreational use, estimates said it could be a $130 million annual market. The city is still looking to fully regulate and tax marijuana, but as of May 2018, D.C. had made $17.7 million through marijuana-related sales.
“The cannabis industry is growing and Virginia is growing along with it,” says Greg Kennedy, a partner with Dalitso.
“I think that Virginians, like most Americans, believe marijuana belongs behind a counter, where it can be safely regulated, and not on the street corner where it isn’t,” Pedini expresses.
That’s a question that will face the 2019 session of the General Assembly, as Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) plans to reintroduce a decriminalization bill—which he introduced in the 2018 session, but didn’t make it to a floor vote.
“Each state is approaching cannabis legalization at its own pace and in its own way,” says Kennedy. But will 2019 be a big step toward legalization for the commonwealth, or will the state continue its measured approach?
Virginia 2019 Cannabis Conference & Lobby Day
Virginia NORML hosts the annual conference that has national experts, state legislators and local industry leaders speak to audiences about attempts to legalize and regulate marijuana in the state. // Jan. 12-14; Delta Hotels Richmond Downtown: 555 E. Canal St., Richmond; conference-vanorml.nationbuilder.com